The Power of Speech

In these days of face masks, it can be hard to speak clearly, and it can be hard to understand someone who is speaking to you.  Even in the best of settings, communication can still be hard.  Even without a face mask during the COVID-19 crisis, speech sometimes doesn’t come out like it should, and it isn’t heard as it was intended to be heard. 

Most of us—including myself—take communication for granted.  You would think that, after 26 years as a speech therapist, that I wouldn’t take it for granted.  Yet, I still do. The two-way street of speaking and listening, the give-and-take of verbal exchanges is a complex process.  Most of us produce speech effortlessly, without thinking, and most of us can hear others when they speak to us.  Speech flows from the speaker, then the listener understands and responds. 

Except when it doesn’t flow, and the listener can’t understand and respond.  Like when both parties are wearing face masks. 

**

Every May, my profession observes Better Speech and Hearing Month.  It is part of our professional duties to share insight and awareness, and to educate others in how to achieve optimal communication.  This year, when face masks have become the new normal, the meaning of clear communication is heightened. 

My goal is to provide information on how to take care of one’s voice, how to preserve one’s hearing, how to communicate best with someone who has a communication deficit.  I will also speak of maximizing swallow function and swallow safety, as that is a significant portion of my work. 

These topics are timeless and always relevant to good health.  I will reiterate what I tell my patients, my friends, my family, and anyone who will listen. 

  • Drink enough water.  In the treatment of voice disorders, drinking “enough” water is rule #1.  The vocal cords are among the first tissues of the human body to show signs if there is any level of hydration.  “Enough” is defined as:  half your body weight in ounces daily.  And, if you consume caffeine (like I do, I never tell anyone they have to quit), add that much more water to that figure, as caffeine has a dehydrating effect. If you are drinking nowhere near this amount, remember that anything closer to that amount is progress.  Drinking enough water is good advice for anyone with or without voice disorders, unless your health care provider has advised you otherwise. 
  • Engage in deep breathing exercises to maximize vocal function.  Expanding your belly as you breathe in is the goal as you breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.   And, in these days of COVID-19, be thankful for the ability to breathe easily if you can.  Many people suffering with the disease cannot.
  • If you are a smoker, PLEASE consider giving it up.  The negative effects of smoking on the human body are well known, but it also affects vocal quality. 
  • Vocal abuse is an issue for people who overuse their voices, including singers, teachers and public speakers.  Excessive, repeated strain on the voice can cause short-term or permanent damage. 
  • If you must be exposed to loud noises on the job, or perhaps you are using power tools or a lawnmower, wear ear protection.  It is well-documented that repeated, excessive noise damages hearing.  The music going in your ears via earbuds must also be kept at an acceptable volume. 
  • Most of us eat too fast—myself included.  I have many patients referred to me by their health care provider with complaints of choking, or other signs of swallow problems.  Often, after we determine no physical cause, it becomes clear that they are eating too fast and/or taking bites that are too large.  When they simply slow down and report back to me, the swallow problem is often “cured.”  It does take awareness and discipline, but, just like most other physical functions, swallowing ability decreases with age due to muscle weakness and an overall slowdown of the whole process.   I often use the analogy that “you are clogging the drain.”  We all know what happens when too much is sent down a drain too quickly.  The same thing often happens when we eat too fast.  Of course, your health care provider should be informed of these problems, but start by slowing down your rate of intake and the bite size, and see what happens.  One simple, yet difficult strategy is to put your fork or spoon or finger food down between bites.  Chew the one in your mouth thoroughly, swallow it, take a small sip of water if you need to, perhaps swallow again, then pick up the utensil or finger food for the next bite.  We fail to savor and fully enjoy the bite in our mouths if there is another one waiting to be shoveled into the mouth while we are still chewing.  Again, I am guilty of this, too.  Simply try slowing down when you eat. 

**

If we haven’t already, we should all offer gratitude toward our doctors and nurses not only for their valiance and dedication toward treating and healing patients with COVID-19, but for all they do, all year, every year.  Hospital week was observed earlier this month, and National Nurses Day was observed on May 6th as well.  Better Speech and Hearing Month is observed during the month of May as I noted above, and please consider my professional advice given above as positive steps toward good health every day of every year. 

**

My brother-in-law is profoundly hearing impaired, but he leads a full and productive life as a person who communicates by reading the speaker’s lips.  He is struggling in this new era of face masks in public, as they cover the speaker’s lips.  Whether or not we realize it, many of us rely upon facial cues when we are speaking in person with someone to clarify a message.  With the speaker’s mouths covered, we rely upon the eyes, which do help in the communication process, but not as much as the facial expressions made by the mouth. 

My parting advice to you is this:  if you are still able to communicate well in these face mask times, be grateful.  If you know your communication partner struggles with hearing and understanding, please offer a repetition, a written message or other functional form of communication. 

Above all, please take good care of your voice, your hearing, your lungs and every other body part—whether or not they help you communicate.

Thank you doctors, nurses and hospitals today, and every day.